Educational Psychology: What are the functions of attitudes and how do they impact the teaching process?



8a ii). Outline the function of attitudes in the teaching process and how they impact learning and their respective components.

Functions Of Attitudes

At this juncture, it is important to examine the role attitudes play in our lives. These are the following

  1. Cognitive
  2. Social adjustment
  3. Ego defense mechanisms
  4. Expressing Values                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               1. The cognitive function

Attitudes play the role of assisting the individual understand the world. Under this function attitudes give us a frame of reference, a way to structure the world so that it makes sense. For example a pupils attitudes about possible professional fields may help him in the choice of subjects the also determine the effort to put in order to attain the specific goals.

          2. Social Adjustment function

Human beings are social creatures. Certain individuals and groups are very important to the person. These important individuals are called the significant other persons. They expect one to hold certain attitudes particularly attitudes consistent with those they hold. When the person holds the desired attitudes he earns group membership through being accepted as one of them. This is important and promises the individual’s survival in the group. The expression of the approved attitudes earns the person rewards, identification and approval. On the other hand if the individual does not hold attitudes consistent with the group he is threatened with ex-communication. When a child is sent away from the family home, or a pupil is expelled from the school it is because they fail to comply with the attitudes fostered by either the home or the school. When Bishop Milingo of the Catholic Church went against the behavior prescribed by the church he was threatened by excommunication.

        3. Ego defense mechanisms

Human beings are psychologically uncomfortable with situations that threaten their self- esteem or their ego. So in order to live with such situations they build psychological defenses around their egos. The defense mechanisms involve a degree of self-deception as well as distortion of reality. For example a pupil who has not worked hard for their examination will refuse to accept responsibility for the failure that results. He will attribute the failure to other sources. He will say that the teacher dislikes him and therefore can never give him good grades. Or the teacher is incompetent and the like. Or a man who is beaten by his wife finds it extremely difficult to acknowledge and accept that indeed it happens, so, when he is among other men he becomes the staunchest advocate for the supremacy of men, the power of the men over women and the need to keep women in their place.

A person who uses ego defense mechanisms looks for the slightest opportunity to confirm the belief. This confirmation protects him from acknowledging this weaknesses and basic truths about him. At times the ego-defense mechanisms lead to self-fulfilling prophesies. They serve the purpose of maintaining the erroneous beliefs.

Development of attitudes

The key questions here concerns how attitudes are acquired. Attitudes are acquired early in life through the following methods:

  • Observation
  • Instrumental conditioning
  • Classical conditioning
  • Direct experience



  • Observational learning

According to the social learning theory attitudes are transmitted through the process of imitation. This is learning by observing others. From early in life children see how a parent, a sister, a brother, a teacher, a television character or model reacts towards a kind of food, a certain animal, person or event. The child then models his own attitudes after those expressed by these important models. In later childhood and adolescence the person observes the peer group and identifies with them by assuming the attitudes they hold.

  • Instrumental conditioning

According to this theory attitudes can be established or modified through reinforcement procedures. Throughout life people are rewarded with praise, approval and friendship for expressing certain attitudes. They are punished for expressing others. The attitudes that are rewarded tend to be held more strongly while punished attitudes are weakened.

According to these theories the environment must be organized in such a way that an attitude has all the likelihood of being reinforced until it is established.

  • Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning is learning through association. In life, people see smoke and they know smoke and fire occur together. When lightening is seen thunder is anticipated.

Likewise when a person visits the dentist, pain is anticipated. Experiments in classical conditioning have revealed that when a neutral stimulus is consistently associated with stimulus that produces emotional response, classical conditioning occurs. After repeated pairings of stimuli the previously neutral stimulus become conditioned stimulus and elicits the same response that the unconditioned stimulus does. At home of the mention of the neighbours home by the parents is associated with negative comments e.g. they are of dubious character or background, they steal, they are proud and so on the children assume the negative attitudes towards the neighbours.

If a boy continually hears his father comment negatively or derogatively about women he acquires negative attitudes towards girls and women. Every time a child hears people speak negatively about members of a certain religion, community, race or religion, then the child assumes similar attitudes. In the school situation classical conditioning influences attitudes in the following ways:

If a math lesson is paired with difficult incomprehensible concepts and math tests with failing grades the learner acquires negative attitudes towards math.

Also if school life is paired with physical and psychological pain and discomfort, then the child acquires a negative attitude towards school.

  • Direct experience

Many attitudes are learned by direct experience with the attitude object. This occurs through our interaction with the attitude object as well as our memory for these interactions. For example a pupil may have heard that a certain teacher is very harsh and every body fears him. When this teacher takes up the mathematics class he instills discipline, goes about teaching seriously and systematically and eventually the mathematics grade improves. The pupil learns to respect the teacher and his hope for passing mathematics is renewed. This positive attitude towards the teacher is likely to endure. Attitudes formed as a result of first hand or direct experience are more thoughtful, more certain, more stable and more resistant to attack.


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